French Socialist party head Francois Hollande has been ahead in polls since the day he won his party's presidential nomination 10 months ago. President Nicolas Sarkozy believed all along he'd be able to close the gap, and finally managed to do so on Monday, but only by a single percentage point. The traditional debate between the final two candidates will take place tonight (Wednesday) while the second round of elections is scheduled for Sunday. This debate is Sarkozy's last chance, albeit a slim one.
Based on the results of the first round, Sarkozy understood that the 6.4 million French citizens (18 percent of the population) who voted for Marine Le Pen's National Front would decide the election. Sarkozy, like Jacques Chirac before him, cannot bargain with the radical Right. But the radical Right has made his life easy by declaring that it would refuse to negotiate with Sarkozy. Consequently, Sarkozy has decided to sidestep Marine Le Pen and appeal directly to her voters, by striking a very right-wing tone.
"Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor," Winston Churchill wrote in 1938 about the Munich accords. "They chose dishonor. They will have war."
A paraphrase of this quote has been making the rounds in France this week. "You had to choose between dishonor and losing," a journalist wrote about Sarkozy's right-wing pandering. "You chose dishonor, but you will end up losing."
Fortunately for Sarkozy, a chambermaid at New York's Sofitel solved the biggest problem he had with socialism. Had Dominique Strauss-Kahn never been accused of sexual assault, he might have been the presidential frontrunner today. As France seeks to solve its economic problems on the one hand, while maintaining its international standing on the other, it saw Strauss-Kahn, a former director-general of the International Monetary Fund, as the right man for the job. But Strauss-Kahn revealed that he possessed extracurricular interests unbefitting a public official. Seeking a new hero, the socialists found one in the singularly anti-heroic Hollande.
Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, Sarkozy's biggest challenge is not the Left, but the Right. Marine Le Pen is not her father. They share an ideology, but one that comes in starkly different packaging. Unlike her father, Marine Le Pen does not feel the need to be provocative at any cost. She knows that she can better achieve her goals through restraint. Her reckoning is simple: The Republican Right, that of Sarkozy's UMP party, has failed. The Socialists will merely bog France down with an unsustainable economic policy. Thus, in five years, when France's economic and immigration problems are that much worse, she will constitute a real presidential alternative.
Sarkozy has only himself to blame. He overdid things during the first few months of his presidency, mingling with wealthy friends on extravagant yachts. In French tradition, conspicuous consumption is not fashionable, especially during a time of worldwide protests. Sarkozy also chose to carry out tax reforms that significantly benefited his wealthy friends. He is now regarded as a president of the wealthy, even the extremely wealthy. Nor has his personal life been very presidential. The text messages he sent former top model and millionaire singer (now his wife) Carla Bruni during diplomatic meetings were more befitting a high school student. Nor did photographs from his vacation with Bruni reflect well on his presidential credentials.
France is willing to entertain "diverse" personal lives in its leaders, as long as they maintain discretion. Francois Mitterand was a major beneficiary of this permissive French attitude, but he also preserved an outward appearance of decorum. Keep in mind that there was even a French president by the name of Felix Faure who died in the arms of his lover on Feb. 16, 1899, while in his office at Elysee Palace, at the height of the Third Republic. He was 58 at the time and the only president to ever have died in the palace. Which means that Sarkozy can take solace in the fact that there are far less pleasant ways to leave office.